1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

I loved this book.

You have to respect a book, and that book’s writer, who seeks to encompass such a huge subject, however concisely.  And, yet, even with the necessary compression (without it, we’d have a venerable tome at least the size of Follet’s Pillars of the Earth and World Without End combined) the narrative is surprisingly detailed and rich.

We learn about the Zapotec/Mixtec War, the Hundred Years’ War between Mutal and Kaan, the odd meeting of Wari and Tiawanaku, the egotistical folly of the Cahokia elite, and the genesis of the Iroquois League.  All of which we should have learned in school, but is, alas, largely absent from most textbooks.  I was more than pleased to see the inclusion of a discussion of the Norte Chico, but rather disappointed with the neglect of Teotihuacán, which only got a few passing references.    And the shear scale of the smallpox epidemic of the 1780s is amazing.  Even contemplating it from this distance, I am left feeling a kind of horrified awe.  I can only imagine the devastation it wreaked.  That image of a pock-marked warrior, alone in a tipi, shooting himself just stays with you.

In many ways, this book is a breath of intellectual fresh air.  I was happy to see that we’d finally left behind the “Noble Savage”, begun the demolition of the “wall” that apparently, had only permitted cultural influence to pass one way, and shattered the rose colored glasses that deluded us into thinking that pre-Columbian Americans were passive participants in their own lives.  They were, human.  It’s an obvious observation, but it is something our ancestors (and some modern scholars) forgot, or ignored, in their raptures and rhapsodies about nature and their prejudices and bigotry about “savages”.

This book is a fascinating read.  I will definitely be reading 1493.

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars


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